Grandma always smelled like jasmine. It reminded Addy of picnics in the field behind the barn during springtime. Only, there was no barn, she didn’t know when jasmine bloomed, and picnics were only things she’d read about in the books grandma gave her. She knew the smell was jasmine, though, because Grandma told her. Grandma also said the secret was wearing petals beneath your clothes. She said jasmine reminded her of where she came from, and that you should carry a piece of home with you wherever you went.
So, Addy lifted up the front of her shirt, took a finger-full of mud from the grass and wiped it careful across her belly. Addy’s shirt fell back down. She pressed the used-to-be-bright-blue shirt into the mud, and the mud into her skin. She wondered if people would smell dirt when she walked by.
She stood outside the door to her apartments. Her and her glass ghost’s chins were at the metal handle. Grandma said when Addy’s collarbone reached the handle she could ride her bike to Dairy Queen and get a Dilly Bar all by herself. She stretched up onto her tippy toes and touched fingers with her glass ghost. “We’re close,” she said.
Addy pushed the door open and stepped into the hallway, then dug three rocks from her jeans pockets. They weren’t from anywhere special. She’d just found them while she was walking home from the park. But Mom-mom said it was tradition to leave presents for your neighbors whether they knew you were the giver or not. She’d done it as a little girl with baskets of eggs, or tea, or hearts she colored with her crayons. Addy didn’t have any of that, but Grandma said it wasn’t the what-you-gave-them that counted, but the thought of it.
The rocks sat cold in Addy’s palm for a minute. She wondered if the mud and the rocks spoke the same language since they both lived on the ground. Or maybe it was more like how she spoke English and Paul spoke Spanish, even though they lived in the same building and were in Mrs. Crane’s second grade class together. Maybe the mud spoke a wetter language, and the rocks spoke a harder one. She rolled the rocks around in her hand, listening hard to the noise they made when they ran into each other, but she couldn’t understand any of it.
She chose the smooth brown one for Michael’s door. His mom always called his dad a smooth talker. The flat brown stone felt cold and heavy in her hand, but had a perfect place for her thumb to rub. Addy rubbed it three times for luck. One, two, three. She set it on top of the deep red carpet next to Michael’s door, right by the spot where his cat, Sticks, scratched it all up wanting inside.
The white spongy one felt like a Wiffle ball but sounded like a thud when she tossed it into the air and let it land on her palm. It hurt her bones for a second. Addy set the Wiffle ball sponge rock by Mrs. Mitchell’s door because she didn’t want to leave her out. Mrs. Mitchell came by every Saturday to bring Grandma mail or tell her she had some coupons for her or a sundress she thought Grandma would like. She always had a reason for leaving her #8 apartment and coming to their #11. Most of them were good ones.
Addy had saved the black rock she’d found by the park fence for last. She decided to give it to Mr. and Mrs. Thuriot. The rock was a boring gray like the hallway walls, but it was almost shaped like a heart. She didn’t really know Mr. and Mrs. Thuriot, but everyone could use more things almost shaped like a heart. It was the biggest rock she’d found, and she figured she should leave it next to the empty flower pot they had outside their door.
When Addy arrived at her door, she could hear Grandma’s TV already. The $10,000 Pyramid, the last game show of the day.
“C’mon, you dolt! It’s things that start with ‘P’!” Grandma’s voice was shushed by the door between them, but Addy could hear every word. She put her hand on the scratched-up doorknob and giggled, hoping Grandma would catch the smell of mud from her and be proud, instead of being mad at the stain reaching through her shirt.
Mom-mom was always floating in and out of Addy, ever since the day her and Daddy yelled too much and Daddy sent Mom-mom away. She used to call Mom-mom just “Mom” back then. Before Daddy met Linda and started making Addy call Linda “Mom” instead.
Back then, Addy would be playing hopscotch at school and suddenly Mom-mom’s hand was on Addy’s forehead, and Addy’s head was in her lap, and Mom-mom was humming along to a radio that was playing in the car while Daddy drove to the zoo. Or, more often, Mom–mom would be on the other side of a door. A bedroom door, a bathroom door, the front door, and Addy would be sitting with her back against the door, crying. If it was the bathroom door, Addy could smell the stuff Mom-mom sprinkled on the hall carpet to make it smell good. It smelled like flowers and laundry soap. It hurt her nose.
Mom-mom was there, then, too, even if Addy couldn’t see her. She was just on the other side of the cold against Addy’s back.
Addy opened the door to the apartment and Mom–mom floated back again. But for real this time. She was on Grandma’s couch with a lip-smile. A big one. She never showed her teeth. Addy didn’t know if Mom-mom even had teeth.
“Addy, baby-girl, I’ve missed you!” Mom-mom held out her arms and Addy ran into them. Just like always. Her skin was soft like Addy remembered, and the bone by her shoulder still fit just right against Addy’s ear. Addy thought of a kangaroo and her joey, only instead of a pouch, Mom-mom had a hook for Addy to hang from.
“I missed you, too.” Addy didn’t let go.
Grandma got up from her chair and shut the door. “Your Mother decided to stop by on her way out of town. I told her you might not get back in time, but here you are.”
The $10,000 Pyramid bing-ed with a right answer. “Oh, he might get it all!” Grandma said, hurrying back to her chair.
Mom-mom hooked her hands into Addy’s armpits and lifted Addy away from her chest. “Let me look at you, beautiful.”
Addy tugged her shirt down so Mom-mom wouldn’t see the mud. “You throw me and I always come back to you,” said the man on TV.
Mom-mom looked sad. Addy could tell she was going to say goodbye already. “I can’t stay long. I have to be at the bus station by six o’clock.”
“Where are you going?” Addy asked. Maybe she could go this time.
Mom-mom looked over at Grandma. “Well, Grandma gave me money to go to a nice place in Minnesota. You know, like the one where you brought me cookies?”
Addy remembered. There had been a lot of nice nurses. “Are you sick again?”
“Yeah, it’s bad this time. But I’m going to be back real soon, I promise. Why don’t you lie down and I’ll rub your forehead?”
“Things a boomerang might say!” said the TV.
“Fran…” Grandma’s voice had its you’re-in-trouble sound.
Mom-mom’s lips got tight. “I want to be honest with her.”
“Then be honest, for Christ’s sake. Tell her everything. Don’t give her half-truths.” The TV had a lot of clapping and yelling and music on it. They must have gotten it like Grandma said. Addy wriggled out of Mom-mom’s arms and laid down on the couch with her head in Mom-mom’s lap. She grabbed Mom-mom’s hand and put it on her forehead, making it move back and forth across her brow.
“I’m doin’ the best I can.” Mom-mom leaned further back into the couch. The big pillows hugged her from behind and her hand began rubbing Addy’s forehead on its own.
“The hell you are,” Grandma said.
“It’s okay, Mom-mom, you’ll get better. The nurses told me last time you were doing real good.”
But Mom-mom had forgotten Addy was there again. Her and Grandma always forgot about Addy when they were together.
“And that,” Mom-mom said. “Why does she call me that? I hate it. I’m her Mom, not that…”
“I didn’t teach her that,” Grandma said. “She just started it one day.”
“After being at his house?”
Addy focused on the feeling of Mom-mom’s hand gliding across her forehead. She closed her eyes, opened up her mommombox in her head. She saw Mom-mom’s voice and turned it into steam, like when Grandma was boiling spaghetti noodles. Addy made the steam swim into her mommombox and closed the lid. Quick.
Mom-mom’s fingers were warm. Soft. The theme music played on the TV and Mom-mom and Grandma’s voices started to sound like the muted trumpet Daddy had shown her last time she visited him, like the teacher in Charlie Brown, like their words weren’t even words. Like they weren’t real.
Addy didn’t think she was real anymore. She sat on the tree stump she kept at the way back in her head. Sometimes not being real and being at the way back of her head helped things stay the same. She held the mommombox in her lap but kept it shut tight.
The stump was from the tree in her old house, the one she lived in before Grandma’s apartment. When she cut the tree down in her head so she could sit on it there, she had counted the rings like Daddy told her about. One for every year. The tree was seven just like her. It never went anywhere and was always just the right size for Addy to crawl onto. It used to be an oak tree. It used to have squirrels and birds and bugs all up inside it. Now it just had Addy.
She set the mommombox down on the ground. Her skin goosebumped and she looked around. She heard a croak. There was a frog named Harris somewhere.
“Harris?” she said.
Harris jumped from the even further back of her head and stopped at her feet. “Addy?” he said.
She laughed. “Who else?”
“Maybe Margaret,” Harris said.
“Margaret is no one,” Addy said.
Harris hopped over to a ring of mushrooms. “Margaret would be sad about that,” he said.
Addy shook her head and her hair tickled her shoulders. Harris was silly. “Want to go swimming?” Addy said.
Harris hopped once and landed right where he started. “I always want to swim. Shall we catch flies after?”
Addy crumpled her face up. “Ewwww! No!”
I have to go. I love you, Addy-girl.
Addy scooted off the tree stump. She shoved the mommombox into the hole in the ground one, two, three steps away. She had spent almost an entire day digging the hole with her fingers. The day Mom–mom and Dad yelled too much.
Addy followed Harris to the
I’ll be back soon.
She watched her foot step into the water. Sunlight.
A door shut.
“Come on,” Harris said. He kicked his frog legs and disappeared under
The scratch of couch fabric on Addy’s legs.
the water. One more step. Both feet in. Addy squeezed her eyes shut.
“Are you all right, Addy?” Grandma’s voice didn’t have a box. It was just there.
Grandma made chili and cornbread. Macaroni and cheese. Pie. Homemade cinnamon applesauce. Pot roast. Sometimes spaghetti. Peanut butter and jelly.
Addy made scrambled eggs. Toast. Grandma loved Addy’s scrambled eggs. Daddy always made spaghetti. Cereal and popcorn when they watched Saturday cartoons. Mom made salad and garlic bread to go with Daddy’s spaghetti. Sometimes she made cheeseburgers. Before Mom was Mom and was just Daddy’s girlfriend, she didn’t make anything. She just smiled a lot and asked Addy how old she was.
Addy liked peanut butter and jelly best. She could take it anywhere.
After Mom-mom left and Grandma knew Addy was all right, it got dark. The living room moved in and out of the light from the TV. Grandma’s recliner went from shadow to red and brown to shadow. The bookcase had more shadows than books, then more books than shadows. Some words were there even in the shadow, though. The door next to it was white, then gray. White, then gray. Addy’s hands were skin then not.
Grandma was in the kitchen making dinner. Frozen pizza because it’s been a day. Addy could smell the heat from the oven even though it was across the room and around the corner. Could hear the rip of plastic coming off the pizza, the clunk of pizza on the pan, the rustle of plastic going into the garbage. She heard Grandma sigh. Mumble. Hum.
Addy had to go pee. She got up from the couch and walked from the flickering living room to the bathroom. The hall was one, two, three, four steps to the bathroom door.
Addy walked onto the pink tile and turned the light on. She pulled down her pants and undies and sat on the toilet. She waited. She stared at the picture of the hummingbird hung on the wall. It hummed over Grandma’s green towel and Addy’s red one. The wall behind it was white but yellow. Grandma had called it aged. That meant old.
Addy kicked her legs back and forth. She rocked forward and backward. She would push the pee out. Make the almost pain of it go away. And it worked. She felt it leak out of her just before she heard it hit the water in the toilet. She thought of Harris and the splash he made when he jumped into the creek at the way back of her head.
She wondered if Harris thought she had gone away because she was mad at him. She hoped not. She pulled the TP off. Four squares like Mom had taught her. She wiped front to back like Mom–mom said. Then she flushed the toilet, pulled up her undies and pants, and washed her hands like Grandma always asked.
The sink was light blue. An inside-out robin’s egg. Addy flicked the water from her fingers onto it and watched the drops. She always hoped they would skitter sideways down the sink like rain did on windows. They never did, though. They just slow-slid into the drain.
When she went back into the living room, Grandma was on the couch instead of her recliner.
“Did you wash your hands?”
“Good.” Grandma patted the cushion next to her. “Come ‘ere. Snuggle with an old lady while she watches TV. The Muppets are on next.”
Addy loved The Muppets. She ran and jumped onto the couch. She leaned in to Grandma’s side and wriggled under her arm. She couldn’t wait to see Fozzie tell his dumb jokes.
She knew her and Grandma would sing the theme song. She knew they would laugh at Kermit waving his arms like crazy flags. She could smell the pizza and knew it would be good, just not as good as when Grandma cooked her own food. But she knew they would eat it anyway and then go to bed. And she knew Grandma would tuck her in and tell her that reading in bed would give her nightmares. Grandma knew she would read in bed. She knew.Jessica Standifird (Rich) is a writer and performer living in Portland, Oregon. Her works have been published in River & South Review, The Manifest Station, and Bear the Pall: An Anthology on the Loss of a Parent, among others, and featured on the podcasts Limited Engagement and LITerally.